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Ex-ambassadors urge US, Russia to mend rift

MOSCOW — The United States and Russia should overcome their current cold spell by focusing on their common economic and security challenges, former diplomats to Moscow and Washington said Tuesday.

The ex-ambassadors, speaking at an event commemorating the 80th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties, said the strains have been driven by emotions and misperceptions rather than fundamental differences. They strongly urged the Kremlin and the White House to move past mutual grievances and deal with common threats.

President Barack Obama's initiative to "reset" relations with Russia has run into obstacles as the Kremlin accuses Washington of meddling in Russia's domestic affairs. Ties also have been strained by differences over the civil war in Syria.

U.S.-Russian relations hit a new low in December when Russia banned U.S. adoptions of Russian children to retaliate against a U.S. law calling for sanctions on Russians who are identified as human-rights violators.

"In many ways, people are passing legislation in both countries that is undermining some of the most important achievements of the last three-four years," said James Collins, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001.

He voiced hope that Moscow and Washington would find a way to approach their differences in a "more reasonable and rational way."

"We don't really see a reason, any fundamental reason, why Russia and the United States can't find common purpose and find means of cooperation to address the real issues that face both of our people," Collins said.

He added that "neither Russia, nor the United States really knows what to do about Syria," where a civil war has killed an estimated 70,000 people in two years.

Russia has blocked attempts to pass new U.N. sanctions against Syrian President Bashar Assad but says it is not supporting Assad outright.

Vladimir Lukin, the Russian ambassador to Washington in the early 1990s who is now the nation's rights ombudsman, suggested that Washington was too focused on its own interests to pay attention to the nuances in Moscow's approach to Syria.

"It's like an elephant passing by a bear and accidentally stamping on its foot. The bear would feel hurt, but the elephant wouldn't even notice he did it," he said.

Lukin recalled a conversation last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who asked him about U.S. policy goals in Syria.

The president asked me... what the Americans want in Syria, saying he couldn't understand what they want," he said. "I honestly acknowledged that that I can't make out what they want, but that I know for sure that they want us to join the U.S. in its failure to understand what to do in Syria and to not act independently."

Moscow has argued that international efforts should focus on encouraging peace talks between Assad and his foes, even though the Syrian opposition has refused such negotiations. The rebels say the Syrian strongman must step down over his violent crackdown on the uprising against his rule.